Apr 162008

Pushing all the right buttons

It’s too bad that XTC is best known for, among other things, being that once-promising New Wave band with a leader whose severe stage fright caused them to stop performing live, ultimately killing the band’s commercial chances and artistic growth more than any series of Malevolent and Incompetent Managers. From the band’s second album, Go 2, through Mummer (and even the intent of The Big Express) released one of my favorite strings of albums of any band. Those albums still mean a lot to me on many levels, and at their core I’ve always loved their ability to cram super-pop ideas into heavy, sometimes fractured rhythms. The Beatles met Beefheart or Steve Reich or any number of avant musicians.

Just as I was first getting into the band, after seeing the videos for songs like “Making Plans for Nigel” and “Life Begins at the Hop” on the syndicated New Wave video show Rockworld I saw an ad for the band’s upcoming appearance at Emerald City, in Cherry Hill, NJ. The ad featured that Drums and Wires logo, which was reason enough to dig deeper on this band. I briefly considered what it would be like to get into that show, but I was an innocent 16 years old, too young and too naive to attempt getting into this club illegally (you had to be 18 to get into a bar in New Jersey at this time). I probably spent that night staying up late in hopes of catching an XTC video on Rockworld.

Emerald City was primarily a disco

About 3 days later, I won tickets on Philadelphia’s WMMR to see some blues-rock band called The Nighthawks…the next night at Emerald City. I knew these guys weren’t XTC, but I wasn’t going to miss my chance to get into a club and see a rock band up close while I was still under age. I thought fast, and my very cool, prematurely gray high school English teacher agreed to escort me to the show. This was all cool with my Mom. I got in without problem. The Nighthawks were pretty bad – and they definitely weren’t XTC. Damn, you mean to tell me I could have gone to see XTC with my teacher a few nights earlier? Here’s the live sound of XTC that was cooking around that time, a taste of what I missed.

“Life Begins at the Hop”
“Real by Reel”
“When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty”
“Complicated Game”

More bootleg live tunes and thoughts follow.

A couple of years later I would own all the XTC albums that were out at the time. English Settlement was a real landmark for me. I still think it’s one of the most accomplished albums of its time. I still remember reading a “Random Note” in Rolling Stone or somewhere about the band having to cancel its just launched tour owing to Andy Partridge’s stage fright and some fall he took from the stage. I didn’t think much of it, figuring he’d get over it and eventually I’d get to make up for that concert opportunity I missed. As it was, some of these performances of the new songs from English Settlement would be the last time anyone would hear the classic XTC lineup of Partridge, Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory, and Terry Chambers play live. This stuff is pretty smoking for a band led by a guy with severe stage fright. Can you imagine if some modern-day shrinking violet, a Cat Power, for instance, kicking it out like this?

“No Thugs in Our House”
“Senses Working Overtime”

History will remember XTC as the post-touring Prock version of the band, whose band members’ whining about getting screwed by the industry will only be outweighed by the whining of the band’s own fans, who fail to acknowledge that the deck was stacked against a non-touring band led by a pudgy comic book collector. But that’s cool. I still love XTC, even after years of tight-ass, mediocre albums and overrated homages to the overrated Beach Boys’ track “Heroes and Villains”.

Let’s get this straight: I wish they’d have been as fantastically successful as the next Chalkhills member wishes they could be, but I’m more interested in bringing to light the true greatness of the band’s years with a real drummer (not some hired gun like Prairie Prince but a regular bloke who couldn’t stand taking direction from his pudgy bandleader who nevertheless benefitted greatly from his guidance), during the period when the band had to play their songs on stage, in front of real people, even women. Beside The Beatles, has any band that’s quit the road made a kick-ass, rocking recording? You can hear it when bands have completely lost the taste of The Road.

If you’re still not convinced that XTC is the best live band that’s best known for not playing live, here are a couple more examples of the band in concert, first an extended jam from their Go 2 era, with Barry Andrews on organ instead of second guitarist Gregory, and then a trio from the majestic Black Sea.

“Battery Brides”
“Respectable Street”
“Paper and Iron”
“Towers of London”

For more XTC downloads (possibly where I first found these tracks a few years back), check out xtc4u.org.


  19 Responses to “Best Live Band That’s Best Known for Not Playing Live: XTC”

  1. BigSteve

    Not to rub it in, but I saw XTC live some time after Drums & Wires, possibly the same tour you missed. They rocked.

  2. saturnismine

    I dunno, dude….i’ve got these Steely Dan bootlegs…and they’re pretty good.

    but seriously…how many other bands fit this category? you’re talking about bands who didn’t play live for a significant chunk of their careers, yeah?

    so we’ve got the beatles, steely dan, xtc, and who else?

    there’s something much richer hidden in this idea you’ve brought up…something about the relation between studio and performance, but i’m yet not sure what.

    maybe it’s also good to ask: who are the bands that probably should’ve stopped touring?

    thanks for these live cuts, by the way. i’ve only listened once, but they’re better than i thought they’d be!

  3. so we’ve got the beatles, steely dan, xtc, and who else?

    Dylan went through considerable periods of time in the ’70s and especially the ’80s when he hardly ever hit the road. And then once 1989 rolled around, along came The Neverending Tour.

    The live stuff on the XTC box, Coat Full of Cupboards is stellar stuff. Their prior box of BBC sessions, Transistor Blast is more hit-and-miss.

    Not to be a jerk or anything, but I’ve never understood the affection for English Settlement. Seems a lot of XTC fans, both in and out of these halls of rock, like this one best. Really? Side 3 bums me out. (Who told them that both “Melt the Guns” and “It’s Nearly Africa” were worth going on the album?) And “Down in the Cockpit” is easily the worst song Andy Partridge ever wrote, not counting stuff buried on the Fuzzy Warbles discs.

  4. Also, I think Brian Eno claims to have stage fright, and hasn’t toured since the 801 days.

  5. Kate Bush and Tom Waits may be horses in this race as well.

  6. Mr. Moderator

    True, there aren’t many horses in this race, and true, as Saturnismine suspects, there is at least intended to be something richer in these thoughts than the tongue-in-cheek title of the post.

    Oats, while “Melt the Guns” and “It’s Nearly Africa” are not my favorite songs on English Settlement, to me their effectiveness – and even the tolerability of “Down in the Cockpit” – is a combined matter of context; repetition; and heavy, heavy bass. There’s more than enough for me to enjoy in the lyrics of those songs as well. What really makes the album work for me, even during its less-than-spectacular songs, is the mix of heavy bottom and warm acoustic guitars. It’s embarrassing to admit, but in some ways it’s like the Great Lost Jethro Tull Album that I’d like to imagine exists. Simply an outstanding pastoral stoner album!

  7. BigSteve

    My love for English Settlement is all about the sound and texture of it. The lyrics leave a lot to be desired, and Partridge was often still singing in that aggressive and exaggerated style that could be so annoying (see No Thugs in Our House).

    The double LP version of it was essential to its appreciation. I think I finally had a decent stereo by that time, and the mastering on that version with just 3 or 4 tracks per side was stunning. Multiple acoustic and electric six- and twelve-string guitars swirling around the VERY LOUD drums. Even with the drums it does feel oddly pastoral.

    The video clips of them recording at the Manor really show what an odd collection of individuals they were. I can hardly imagine them working together well in the studio, much less traveling around together.

    Senses Working Overtime may be my favorite XTC track ever.

  8. trolleyvox

    Doesn’t Partridge sing on “Life Begins at the Hop”? In the video, Moulding is lip-syncing.

  9. Mr. Moderator

    Yes, Tvox. That’s weird, isn’t it, but I always figured it was a smart move on some manager’s part: Let the good-looking guy with good hair sing in the video.

  10. Pince-nez time: “Life Begins at the Hop” was written and sung by Moulding.

  11. BigSteve

    I also meant to say that one benefit of seeing XTC live was finding out what a good guitar player Partridge was (and presumably still is). There were so many cool guitar bits on Drums & Wires, and I had assumed Dave Gregory was the hotshot hired gun who played them. Gregory is obviously a fine guitarist, but Partridge played as many of the memorable bits as he did. So I guess eventually Partridge realized he didn’t need him, and Gregory realized he didn’t need a ‘job’ that was extremely intermittent and didn’t pay very much to non-songwriters anyway.

  12. I always thought Partridge on English Settlement did a rather good job of tackling heavy issues, such as racism (No Thugs is about the National Front), with an appealing blend of anger and humor. I dig his sarcastic address to “The Justice League of America” in “Melt the Guns.”

    But he really does stumble with “Down in the Cockpit,” doesn’t he?

    And, “Senses Working Overtime,” I remember seeing on MTV. I kept thinking, boy that lead singer looks strange. Then the hook of the song really grabbed me. That led me to investigating further what they were about.

  13. Mr. Moderator

    “Down in the Cockpit” is one of those songs in which Partridge’s mixed interests in comic books, feminism, and vintage porn scramble his songwriting faculties. The jazzy solo and silly spoken parts in the middle are the only thing that occasionally keep me from lifting the needle.

  14. I’d also like to point out that this thread is perfectly timed to the change in weather (here in Philly at least). XTC made some of the best spring-weather music. And I heard “River of Orchids” at the hip neighborhood coffeeshop this morning. Really!

  15. I think Joe A opened for them at the Hot Club with Bunnydrums.

    Senses Working Overtime is probably my favorite XTC song too. It fully represents the best of everything they do.

  16. I saw the original lineup in Boston in either ’78 or ’79. Go 2 had just come out and I had just about worn out my copy of White Music. Mt firends and I got to hang with them at the HoJos in Cambridge where they were staying. Back then Colin and Terry seemed quite nice, Andy very nice but very high strung, and Barry was friendly but in retrospect I sensed a tension between him and the rest of the band, even back then.There was a hideous ice storm the night they were to play, and me, 3 friends and about 17 other people saw one of the best rock shows I’ve ever seen in my life. And one of the loudest, too. Barry’s band Shriekback was also a fave and amazing live, and we got to seem come through Boston a few times too.

  17. Mr. Moderator

    Very cool, riffraf, and welcome to the fray!

  18. BigSteve – good call on the ES double vinyl. The various CD versions have never captured the sound quality of that one, and the lengthy album is far less of a chore when it sounds that good.

  19. Not to be a jerk or anything, but I’ve never understood the affection for English Settlement. Seems a lot of XTC fans, both in and out of these halls of rock, like this one best. Really? Side 3 bums me out. (Who told them that both “Melt the Guns” and “It’s Nearly Africa” were worth going on the album?) And “Down in the Cockpit” is easily the worst song Andy Partridge ever wrote, not counting stuff buried on the Fuzzy Warbles discs.

    I have to agree with most of the comments on here so far. For me, the period between Drums and Wires and Skylarking (inclusive of each of those albums as well as all of the records in between) represents one of the finest runs in all of rock and roll history, comparable with Elvis Costello from 1977-1982, The Clash during the same period or dare I say it, The Beatles.

    As for English Settlement, though, I concur with those who said that the double Lp version really is the one to get. Not only is the mastering and production superb (I think Hugh Padham won some sort of award for it, even a Grammy maybe), but it breaks the music up nicely into distinguishable sides and it makes it not too much to take in at one time.

    Like other classic double Lps (think London Calling or Trout Mask Replica, just to give two obvious examples), I think it should be taken as a whole, though. Thus, some of the album’s weaker songs (particularly “Melt the Guns”) never get skipped over, at least for the most part. I don’t get all the hate for “Down in the Cockpit”, though. The melody is infectiously catchy and I also like the jazzy part that others have mentioned as well. The lyrics, much like those of “Melt the Guns”, are well-intentioned but a bit clumsy, though. I think Partridge fared much better dealing with poltical topics on “No Thugs in Our House”, as Dr. John mentioned earlier.

    Also, “Senses Working Overtime” was my cell phone ringtone for several years and like others on here, watching that video on 120 Minutes really made me more curious about them, though I’d already heard “The Mayor Siompleton” and “King for a Day” at that point and maybe “Dear God” as well. I didn’t really get into them until years later, though, when I picked up a vinyl version of Drums and Wries (still the one to get and I m ean specicially the 1982 Virgin reissue with the best track listing).

    Still, I think that English Settlement‘s brilliance and the critical consensus behind it (as well deserved as it is) means that in particular Mummer and to a lesser extent The Big Express often get unfairly overlooked.

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